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Inspiration from Washington

Many times due to the logistics of my travel I can’t be at everything. Too many places to travel to and too many good people to meet. Yet, sometimes, with the Almighty’s help, I am able to attend a couple of events together that are important and substantive. This past week I went to Washington D.C. and had some life-changing encounters. 

For the past few years, I have had the honor of being involved with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge. This is an innovative convening body that strives to help bring inspiration and passion to Jewish day schools across North America. The brainchild of Manette and Louis Mayberg, it is a project of the Mayberg Foundation and is expertly run by their dynamic Managing Director Sharon Freundel together with Founding Director Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I always look forward to their conferences as there is much to learn and the gathering of professionals is outstanding. 

Much of the conversation revolves around the best way to instill Jewish passion within young Jews and bravely point out that the pressure to do well on tests may not always be the answer. At the dinner, I heard new concepts articulated in beautiful ways. The night opened with an address from my good friend, Todd Sukol who serves as the Executive Director of the Mayberg Foundation, and who is also a new grandfather. (Mazel Tov Todd!) Todd spoke eloquently about the concept of Shmita in Judaism and how we are commanded to leave farmland in Israel fallow for one year every seven years. He compared that to a Jewish child. Sometimes after working them hard scholastically, we need to let them process and grow by themselves. It was a deeply meaningful comparison. I certainly was one of those students who did not thrive from the pressure of school and would have benefited from the gift of “space.”


The Mayberg Foundation Dinner


The keynote address of the evening was given by Manette Mayberg. To say the JEIC emanates from Manette’s heart is not an understatement. She is one of the most passionate and thoughtful Jewish leaders I know. Her talk was so inspiring for me that I immediately asked for the video and I hope to share it with you in the coming weeks. In full disclosure, I generally have much running through my mind and cannot always focus on every aspect of a lecture. For this lecture, I was laser-focused and even took notes.


Manette Mayberg addressing the gathered guests at the Mayberg Dinner about revitalizing Jewish education


One of the statements she made resonated with me intensely. She said, “Judaism was never meant to be a contest.” I thought long and hard about that statement because I believe it encapsulated the concept that I have always believed, which is that each person has been given skills to serve the Almighty. They are different for each one of us. Our success or failure should only be based upon serving the Almighty and helping other Jews around us. Our service to the Almighty should not be judged by other people. Yes, we are a community, but we all still have our ways to directly serve the Almighty who will be the only Being to judge us on our success or failure. Jews should always encourage one another and never judge each other. 

In this week’s Chapter of Pirkei Avot, (chapter 4 Mishna 2-3) Shimon Ben Azzai states that we don’t really know the worth of a mitzvah, aside from that it leads us to accomplish another mitzvah. He then says that we should never scorn or judge a person unfavorably, “for there is no person who does not have their time and purpose.” We must all find our unique way to serve the Almighty for that is why we are here. 

Manette also spoke extensively about the crucial importance of love in our religion. In essence, Judaism cannot function without an abundance of love at its core. This idea is seen in a different Mishna in Pirkei Avot, (1: 12) where Hillel teaches us that we all need to love all people. 

When Manette sat back down next to me I told her I had to share some words of Torah proving her concept. I told her that Abraham started Judaism from a place of love and rejected all movements that were based on hate. That is why Judaism has thrived for thousands of years.  It was a truly transformative evening for all who attended, and it elevated Jewish education to a whole new level. 

While in Washington for the conference, I also had the opportunity to attend a special event on Capitol Hill. A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a luncheon commemorating Jewish American Heritage Month from my good friend Ezra Friedlander. Ezra is a powerhouse lobbyist who is active in every aspect of Jewish American life. For a few years I was honored to officiate at a Tu BeShevat Seder at his home in Brooklyn for New York elected officials. I am also honored because he reads this email every week and often writes me a complimentary note. (Which I encourage all of you to do as well)


Ezra Friedlander with Rabbi Steven Burg in Washington


At the luncheon we heard from almost two dozen Senators which is generally unheard of at these events. It seemed that everyone wanted to stop by to tell the room that they stand with the Jewish community in a post-October 7th world. I was moved as Senator James Lankford, who has been a true friend to the Jewish community, quoted from George Washington’s original letter to the Jews.


Senator James Lankford speaking to the crowd in Washington


In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington used a verse from the Book of Micah. The specific verse he referenced was Micah 4:4: “But they shall sit every man under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This verse was used to express his vision of a country where individuals could live in peace and security, free from fear and persecution. It was a powerful reminder that Jews were guaranteed a place in America free from oppression. Everyone noted that currently America is falling short of that promise.

I spoke with Jay Feldman, the Executive Director of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity on campuses across the country about what they have done to upgrade their security and the issues that the fraternity brothers have faced on campus amid this wave of unprecedented antisemitism. I was moved to hear that my dear friends Michelle and Bob Diener assisted in that effort. It was good to hear about how well they are taking care of their Jewish students during these precarious times.


Jay Feldman with Rabbi Steven Burg in Washington


I sat down randomly at one of the empty tables and was joined shortly by an incredible man who by the end of the meal became my hero. In 1979 Rocky Sickman was a young US Marine serving at the American Embassy in Iran. He was taken hostage for 444 days by the tyrannical regime that overthrew the government. We talked about what it was like to be held captive for that long and the inhumane conditions they lived through. He told me how they badly mistreated the one Jew amongst them due to their horrific antisemitism.


Rocky Sickman with Rabbi Steven Burg in Washington


Rocky, who is Catholic, told me that he will never forget the sacrifice of the eight soldiers who were killed trying to rescue him and he has dedicated his life to helping families of those who have lost loved ones in the military. We spoke about the comparisons between what he endured and the current hostage crisis in Gaza. He said it was déjà vu and that this was a continuation of what started with his group being kidnapped.


At the end of the meal, Rocky looked straight at me filled with emotion and said that if he could put on a uniform and go to Israel to fight for the Jewish people he would because this was a struggle of good versus evil. I was speechless and humbled. My friends, sitting in that room made me realize that we have allies. We have friends. There are so many non-Jews who understand the greatness of the Jewish people. We must thank them and cherish their help. So many of us, myself included, are focused on how the antisemites define us. We need to make sure we celebrate who we are and embrace those who love us.

My day in Washington was truly a day of love. It was a day of focus on how to inculcate the love of the Almighty in young Jews. It was a day of receiving love and support from Senators in Washington. It was a day of hearing about a Catholic and former Marine’s love for Israel and the Jewish people. My friends, the only way we will truly triumph over the hate on campuses across America is to focus on who we are and love one another. We cannot let those who seek to destroy Western values destroy what is deep in all of our hearts. In the end, love will triumph; the love of the Almighty for us and the love we have for each other. That is the secret of our success. That is why we will always be stronger together. I truly and deeply love you all. May the Almighty bless us with the quick return of our brothers and sisters from Gaza.